SHIA ISMAILI TRADITION IN CENTRAL ASIA: EVOLUTION, CONTINUITIES AND CHANGES

Sarfaroz NIYOZOV


Sarfaroz Niyozov, Coordinator of Central Asian Studies of the Institute of Ismaili Studies (London, U.K.)


Introduction: The Challenge of Writing on the Central Asian Ismailis

Writing an article about Central Asian Shia Ismaili Muslims represents a very challenging task for several reasons: In geographical terms, Central Asia includes a very broad area and this makes the region wherein perhaps the majority of modern worlds Ismailis inhabit. The Central Asian Ismailis can be divided into three groups:

  1. Khurasani Ismailis, who inhabit Irans western-most province of Khurasan;
  2. Hazara Ismailis, who mainly live in the central part of Afghanistan (i.e. Kabul and the Kayan valley of Baghlan province);
  3. Badakhshan Ismailis, who originate from the mountainous valleys that stretch between northeast Afghanistan, northern areas of Pakistan, Badakhshan province of Tajikistan and Tashkurghan district of Xinjiang province of China.

In a broad historical and cultural sense, Central Asia has always exhibited intellectual dynamism and cultural pluralism. As a Silk Road crossroad, Central Asia has been a place where the major religionsZoroastrianism, Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity, Manichaeism, and Islam encountered each other, making Central Asia one of the most plural places of the medieval world. The Islamic spread in Central Asia since the 8th century CE resulted in internal Islamic diversity, reflected in the division of the Sunnis and Shias into their numerous subdivisions. In addition, some of the most powerful Muslim Sufi orders such as the Naqshbandiyya, Qadiriyya and Yasawiyya played a vital role in spreading Islam further east and north of Central Asia. Among those Islamic forces that left their mark on history were the Ismaili Muslims who actively spread across Muslim land from the Fatimid Egypt in the west to the Pamir Mountains in the east and Multan in the south. Ismaili history spans more than a millennium and is not only full of important and interesting epiphanies, but also mysteries and loopholes. While one could find more commonalities in the early period of the Central Asian Ismaili dawa, the subsequent political history of the region makes it difficult to portray Central Asian Ismailis as a homogenous whole. One, therefore, should not view the notion of


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